By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 20, 2006
For more than 60 years, they kept their military secrets locked deep inside and lived quiet lives as account executives, college professors, business consultants and the like.
The brotherhood of P.O. Box 1142 enjoyed no homecoming parades, no VFW reunions, no embroidered ball caps and no regaling of wartime stories to grandchildren sitting on their knees.
Almost no one, not even their wives, in many cases, knew the place in history held by the men of Fort Hunt, alluded to during World War II only by a mailing address that was its code name.
But the declassification of thousands of military documents and the dogged persistence of Brandon Bies, a bookish park ranger determined to record this furtive piece of history, is bringing the men of P.O. Box 1142 out of the shadows.
One by one, some of the surviving 100 or so military intelligence interrogators who questioned Third Reich scientists, submariners and soldiers at one of the United States's most secretive prisoner camps are, in the twilight of their lives, spilling tales they had dared not whisper before.
"It's good. Very good to talk about all this, at last," Fred Michel said last week, steadying himself on his cane as he looked over the rolling, green land along the Potomac River in Fairfax County that once was home to prison cells and interrogation rooms embedded with hidden microphones.
Michel, 85, slowly lowered himself onto a picnic table bench next to his old friend, H. George Mandel, 82. Although they have lived just a few miles apart for most of six decades, they had not spoken since their discharge Dec. 13, 1945. So hush-hush was their work for P.O. Box 1142 that the men recruited for it were ordered to never mention it. To this day, some have refused to speak to the park ranger gathering their oral histories, believing that the oath they took more than 60 years ago can never be broken.
For others, the taboo has eroded as documents have been declassified in waves, starting in 1977 and continuing into the 1990s. Nevertheless, many of the activities of P.O. Box 1142 remain shrouded in mystery.
According to a history cobbled together by the National Park Service, the unit was conceived as an Army/Navy installation to gather information from prisoners who had been captured or surrendered and were brought to the United States for questioning. Germany had superior technology, particularly in rocketry and submarines, and the information that was gleaned from interrogations gave the United States an advantage going into the Cold War and the space age.
In the beginning, the prisoners were mostly U-boat crew members who had survived the sinking of their submarines in the Atlantic Ocean. As the war progressed, P.O. Box 1142 shifted its attention to some of the most prominent scientists in Germany, many of whom surrendered and gave up information willingly, hoping to be allowed to stay in the United States.
The prisoners stayed at Fort Hunt for as little as two or three weeks and as long as nine months. They were held incommunicado; when they had told everything they knew, they were transferred to regular POW camps elsewhere in the United States, and the Red Cross was then notified of their capture. After the war, some returned to Germany, and some stayed in the United States, slipping into the fabric of American life.
Michel and Mandel were German Jews who had immigrated to the United States before the war and were recruited to the unit. They and other interrogators said they obtained information about discoveries in microwaves, atomic and molecular studies, jets used in German planes and submarine technology, including a snorkel that allowed U-boats to stay underwater for long stretches. All they learned was put into top-secret reports that went straight to the Pentagon.
But at night, Michel and Mandel maintained an air of mystery with the dance-card girls, snapping back the reply of "P.O. Box 1142, ma'am" when asked where they were stationed, they recalled.
Further explanation was forbidden. The more than 3,400 prisoners who stayed there were off the books, too, partly because operations at Fort Hunt were "not exactly legal" according to the Geneva Conventions, the National Park Service said.
When it all ended, Michel and Mandel went their separate ways, kept apart by the code of silence. They raised families and had long careers, Mandel as a chemist in Bethesda, Michel as a mechanical engineer in Alexandria.
They met again last week at a Fort Hunt they barely recognized. A family reunion was underway nearby, and a moonbounce wiggled under the weight of children as Beach Boy tunes wafted in the air. It was a far cry from their recollections of roaring Jeeps, the German prisoners and high-ranking officers storming by.
They revisited the place of cloaked memories because Bies had found them.
Bies, 27, is a cultural resource specialist with the National Park Service, schooled in archaeology and obsessed with military history. The wide-brimmed Smokey Bear hat and crisp uniform of the park service suit him all right, but he is more comfortable in piles of documents in a National Archives research room than in the hills of Virginia.
He was working on a series of signs that the park service was planning to place throughout Fort Hunt. They would detail the fort's transformation from a picnic area in 1942 into a major military installation with more than 100 buildings, guard towers and a tangle of electric fences.
Bies hopes to create a full archive of oral histories recorded from the interrogators. He envisions a visitors center that would display the stories, declassified reports and photos he has found. He even imagines installing World War II-era speakers like the ones that were planted in prison cells, piping in German conversations that intelligence officers translated and picked apart.
Then, early this year, a woman on a guided tour of Fort Hunt told a park ranger she thought that her neighbor used to work at Fort Hunt, which today is a park managed by the George Washington Memorial Parkway. The ranger passed Michel's name on to Bies, jump-starting a race against time and old age to find the veterans and record their histories.
"A lot them, unfortunately, have passed away," Bies said. "They're very frail, and this is really the last chance that many of them get to tell their stories. One of them even died since we interviewed him."
He and other Park Service rangers have sifted through reams of documents in the National Archives and have come up with a few names. Almost all of the interrogators were Jewish immigrants from Germany; some lost entire families in the Holocaust. They were recruited to P.O. Box 1142 for their language skills and, in the cases of Michel and Mandel, their scientific background. But the full rosters were kept secret, and many of the declassified documents are missing.
Bies tracked down Michel in Kentucky, where he had moved from Alexandria to be near his family because of his failing health. The former interrogator, who had immigrated from Landau, Germany, before the war, was overjoyed to talk about his time at P.O. Box 1142.
They spent hours talking about Nazi scientists who told Michel about microwave technology, U-boat engineering and other marvels that the young mechanical engineer coaxed out of them.
Michel also told Bies about his bunkmate, Mandel. One quick Google search turned up Mandel's smiling face. "He was right there, near us all along, teaching at George Washington University," Bies said of Mandel, who had immigrated from Berlin in 1937.
Mandel had kept his own family in the dark about his wartime exploits.
"I know my family wondered where the hell I was," he said. "I told them I was speaking to scientists, or something like that. They didn't know I was interrogating Nazis."
His past revisited him once, at a scientific conference in Paris. In passing, he locked eyes with another scientist, a man he had interrogated in a cramped cell years ago.
"He looked at me, and I heard him say to someone in German: 'That was my prison warden,' " Mandel said. The two men shook hands. The exchange was respectful and friendly, he said.
Not everyone at Fort Hunt was an interrogator. Some, such as Wayne Spivey, 86, of Marietta, Ga., were brought in to manage the massive flow of information that interrogators such as Michel and Mandel were getting.
"My mouth was always dropping open when we heard them talking and when we saw the information they got and the sketches of atoms and molecules and whatnot," Spivey said. "I was just one of three Southern boys there, walking around hearing German and Russian and Japanese."
So far, Bies has contacted about 15 veterans, and he tries to rush to their sides to capture their fading memories.
Bies hopes to stage a large reunion next year, with all of the veterans he can find. Then they can stand on the green fields of Fort Hunt, shake hands and embrace, as Michel and Mandel did last week and, at long last, talk.